Violence will not halt Iraq elections, says Allawi

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Iraq is determined to press ahead with elections in January, its interim Prime Minister said yesterday, despite the upsurge in violence that has led Tony Blair to talk about a "second" conflict in the country.

Iraq is determined to press ahead with elections in January, its interim Prime Minister said yesterday, despite the upsurge in violence that has led Tony Blair to talk about a "second" conflict in the country.

Iyad Allawi blamed much of the violence on foreign terrorists intent on creating turmoil in the Middle East. He said his government intended to put Saddam Hussein on trial by the end of the year as a public demonstration that "tyranny will not win".

In an interview at the Foreign Office, Mr Allawi, in London for talks with Mr Blair, said he was determined the elections would take place as scheduled. "We still have four months. We hope by then we will achieve an acceptable level of security to allow us to hold elections," he added.

He dismissed talk that the country was descending into civil war, claiming that the number of attacks was decreasing, although conceding they were getting deadlier. "We have seen evidence the insurgents are being defeated - in Najaf, in Mosul - and that there is progress being made. We are determined to keep this momentum going forward into the elections," he said.

Much of the violence, he claimed, was caused by foreign insurgents who had been pouring into the country because of poor border controls. "Terrorists know this is one of their last chances to gain a foothold," he said. "This could be their flagship in the Middle East, spreading out into other countries." For evidence, he pointed to recent arrests in Haifa Street, Baghdad, scene of some of the bloodiest attacks in recent weeks. He said 63 people were arrested last Friday, of whom 50 to 52 were non-Iraqis, including Syrians and Yemenis.

He sought to tie the violence in Iraq to the global struggle against terrorism, adding that he had sent the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, a letter of support after the Beslan tragedy. "This is a fight for civilisation, a fight for progress, a fight for stability. There is no country that is going to be spared. We have seen what has happened in Spain, in Russia. We all need to work very closely together," he said.

Despite the recent attacks on Iraqi police recruits, Mr Allawi said he hoped to have a 90,000-strong police force in place by the election, plus a 100,000-strong army. He hoped the police force would grow to 135,000 by the end of next year, with an additional 165,000 special forces, which would include specialist units fighting crime and terror, plus six brigades of the National Guard.

He paid tribute to the support of the international community, especially the US and Britain, but refused to be drawn on precisely when they would be asked to leave. "As soon as we feel we are fit to face all the threats and challenges we will say thank you to the international community and ask them to leave." He criticised some of the negative media coverage of Iraq, saying that the improvements were often overlooked. There had been significant security, political and economic achievements, he said, including the control of inflation, boosting salaries in the public sector and rebuilding some schools and hospitals.

Mr Allawi spoke of a recent, unannounced trip he made to Umm Qasr - a port city south of Basra with a population of about 70,000 - which coincided with elections to a local governing council. He said it was remarkable that in the middle of the desert, with virtually nothing in the local media, 70 per cent of people eligible to vote were doing so. He added that a 55 to 60 per cent turnout in the national elections in January would be a "good achievement".

Mr Allawi said his administration intended the trials of senior members of Saddam's government to start next month, with the former dictator in court by November or December. "We aim to show that tyranny will not win. The values of justice, equality and human rights will win and we want the trial to demonstrate to the people the kind of tyranny that existed in Iraq."

He added that they had discovered 262 mass graves in the country so far, although he was less precise on the number of bodies found. He added that these included a group of men, women and children who had been buried alive in a bus.

"I get surprised when people talk about the war being justifiable or not," he said.

"Saddam would have turned the entire region into Hell."